What we learned from the NSA debate

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Ending days of stalemate which resulted in the temporary lapse of some terrorism surveillance powers, the Senate on Tuesday gave broad bipartisan support to a plan that reforms a controversial National Security Agency intelligence gathering program, voting 67-32 to send President Obama a piece of legislation known as the USA Freedom Act.

Most notably, the plan blocks the NSA from collecting bulk telephone records in the future, setting up a structure where the NSA must ask permission of a special intelligence court to get phone records from a telecom provider.

That’s a big change from the NSA simply getting all of the bulk records from the phone companies – and then deciding whether to query them for information about a terrorism lead.

The move also renewed two other provisions that expired on Sunday on roving wiretaps and lone wolf surveillance; the bill also includes other changes like a plan that requires the publication of decisions by the secret intelligence court.

As the Senate gave easy bipartisan approval to a plan that both reforms and renews certain terrorism surveillance powers, the debate provided us with a jumble of story lines on Capitol Hill.

1. Mitch McConnell’s gamble failed

The outcome on Tuesday was most certainly a defeat for the Senate Majority Leader, as he bitterly denounced the bill that the Senate easily approved. After running into gridlock before Memorial Day, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) tried one more time to push GOP Senators to water down the House-passed USA Freedom Act. McConnell though not only found his plans upended by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), but also had to watch as he was outmaneuvered by bipartisan backers of the House measure. Maybe McConnell thought he could force the House into accepting some changes to the bill, but in the end, it was most certainly a legislative setback for his leadership team, as the last ten days were mainly about Republican infighting.

2. Rand Paul looks for 2016 momentum

For Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), it’s been a good last two weeks. There was lots of attention for his mini-filibuster before Memorial Day, then his backers used that week to drum up support for his opposition to NSA surveillance. On Sunday, Paul dominated news coverage by going toe-to-toe with the Majority Leader and forcing the expiration of certain surveillance powers. But as the debate drew to a close on Tuesday, Paul was only a bit player, as he really didn’t figure into the final debate, and the jury is still out on whether he can translate this kind of interest into a winning campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire.

3. Rand Paul vs Republicans

While Rand Paul wasn’t afraid to take on Republican leaders during this NSA debate, rank and file GOP lawmakers weren’t afraid to publicly slam the candidate for President, either. In interviews I did off the Senate floor yesterday, I didn’t have to raise Paul’s name to get Republican Senators to bitterly denounce their colleague. “We have one individual, Rand Paul, who is exploiting this for his own purposes,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) of Paul. It reminds me of the flak that his father Ron Paul took over foreign policy in 2008 and 2012 from other Republicans. Look for a report with Sen. Paul in 2016.

4. Bipartisanship still works

The USA Freedom Act was a reminder that while it might not be easy and it might not provide everything you wanted to achieve in a bill, strong bipartisan support can still win the day. Even as Senate Republicans tried to force changes in the House-passed bill, it went nowhere, as member from both parties in the House banded together to protect the bill any changes. Ultimately, it also brought on board the White House and the Intelligence Community.

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